In 1962, ex-president Charles de Gaulle famously quipped: "Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage?" ("How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?" – the number varies with the telling, but is usually quoted as 325).
In fact, there are between 350 and 400 distinct types of fromage, grouped into eight categories 'Les huit familles de fromage'. In addition, there can be many varieties within each type, leading to claims that the actual number is closer to 1,000 different types. Moreover, the count could be higher still if you include local, home-made products that are rarely found beyond the region of production, indeed sometimes no farther afield than the local market.
Under the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union, certain established French cheeses are covered by a Protected Designation of Origin.
French cheese production is classified under four categories, and PDO/AOC rules dictate which categories each protected cheese may be assigned to:
Fermier: A farmhouse cheese, made on the farm where the milk is produced.
Artisanal: A producer making cheese in relatively small quantities using milk from their own farm, but may also purchase milk from local farms.
Co-opérative: A dairy with local milk producers in an area that have joined to produce cheese. In larger co-opératives, quantities of cheese produced may be relatively large, akin to some industriel producers (many may be classed as factory-made).
Industriel: A factory-made cheese from milk sourced locally or regionally, perhaps all over France (depending on the AOC/PDO regulations for specific cheeses).
The majority are classified as Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC), the highest level of protection. Some are also protected under the less stringent but still legally regulated designation Label Régional (LR). A few French cheeses are protected under the European Union's Protected Geographic Indication designation (PGI).
For the low-down on the world's gourmet cheeses, take a look at
Some of the most popular French cheeses
Brie de Meaux (AOC)
Pont l'Évêque (AOC)
Fromages de Chèvre
Tomme de Savoie (AOC)